Can we return to the workplace, safely?

We’ve entered a period of phased lifting of lockdown. But will South Africa see a rise in the number of Covid-19 cases? We look at how companies can protect their workforce as we try to get the economy rolling again

There’s no doubt that Covid-19 has completely changed our way of living. Despite the nation’s best efforts to be prepared, we need to accept that the infection levels will continue to rise as we combat this pandemic.

In fact, Professor Salim Abdool Karim, an infectious diseases specialist, has warned that South Africa’s Covid-19 infection rate is likely to peak only in September.

There is, however, no need to panic. As he explained in a SABC News item on 5 May, “Sharp rise of Covid-19 cases inevitable”, there was “no reason for us not to switch from Level 5 to Level 4; in fact, in [some] parts of the country they would need to go to a lower level sooner than later.”
There are various measures that can be implemented to ensure that all employees are kept safe during the transitions.

Raghmah Solomon from Vortex Design Solutions, an interior design company specialising in building compliance, says: “From our experience, we know that creating a working environment in which employees are safe and free to flourish is extremely beneficial for both a company’s culture and its bottom line.”

Here are the top eight things you can do to safeguard your building and/or workspace:
• Educate your staff. Make every effort to ensure that your staff members understand how the new health and safety regulations work and why they are in place. No measures you adopt are going to be effective if your staff members are not educated on how to use them or on the facts about how Covid-19 is transmitted.
• Re-evaluate your access control systems. Some buildings use finger biometrics for security reasons. These are easily replaced with card-controlled access systems, which eliminate the risk posed by employees constantly touching the same touchpad.
• Automate your doors. Many doors have no closing mechanism, which means staff have to touch the handles. Automating doors with a door closer and a no-touch sensor button is an easy and unobtrusive step towards improving safety.
• Clear the clutter. Apart from having proven psychological benefits, a clean workspace will eliminate possible places for the virus to linger.
• Redesign the workspaces. Areas of top priority are worktops that are not hygienic, in reception and canteen areas, as well as sale points at retail spaces, which should have sneeze guards.
• Have mobile hand sanitiser units available. Place these at as many common touchpoints as possible, so people can disinfect if they touch a shared surface.
• Restructure open-plan layouts. The safest way to be in a shared space is to adhere to the 2m distance rule, as per the office quarantine-solutions guidelines. Invest in mindful, sustainable technology for teams to restructure their collaborative meetings and team huddles, as well as information signage to keep all members of your company informed and up to date.

Numerous companies are implementing innovative measures to combat Covid-19, one being Serco – a leading truck and trailer body building company. It has developed a sanitation booth in which a fine mist of people-friendly disinfectant is sprayed onto the user to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Dubbed the “Sani-Booth”, the first unit has been delivered to a client, Monteagle Logistics, for its warehouse in Durban.

Serco chief executive officer Clinton Holcroft said his company had been using the lockdown time to review its product range and fast-track developments and new solutions. “We developed the Sani-Booth after being approached by several customers keen for a super-efficient sanitation booth for use by high volumes of staff arriving and leaving work and as a method of helping to ensure workplaces stay healthy, hygienic and safe.”

The walk-through booth incorporates a hands-free sensor to activate the pump and an eight-nozzle system that produces a fine mist of disinfectant, enabling the thorough sanitisation of a fully clothed person from head to toe.

“The control panel has been designed and manufactured by Ikhaya Automation, and the pumps and wearable fittings are standardised for easy replacement if necessary. We have sourced a human-friendly disinfectant solution that is mixed with purified reverse osmosis water which has been proven to kill germs,” explains Holcroft.

He adds that, in addition to the “Sani-Booth”, Serco has several exciting developments in the pipeline.

Stringent safety protocols are in place at all Serco branches around South Africa to ensure work is done in a safe and hygienic manner. “It is vital to ensure we all adopt these good practices to limit exposure and the spread of the virus, including spray sanitising, temperature checking of staff on arrival, social distancing and face masks.”

“Furthermore, workstations have been set up with alcohol-based sanitisers on hand; changing rooms and eating areas are regularly disinfected; and training has been stepped up to increase awareness.”

From an economic perspective, Holcroft emphasises, South Africa – like most countries – will have a large deficit to address when the pandemic subsides. “As a proudly South African company, Serco is committed to doing our part in rebuilding the economy. The hardship inflicted by the pandemic on people and businesses has been real, but it could be argued that previous generations endured much worse. South Africa, to some extent, has had the benefit of forewarning to react proactively, based on the knowledge available from other countries which have made positive progress to combat the virus.

“It has been heartening to see many of our staff step forward and display their commitment, showing initiative to run with solutions to the many new challenges.”

Holcroft thanked those employees who had been called on to provide emergency repairs to essential service customers during the lockdown and – with the introduction of Level-4 lockdown – welcomed back more staff to get limited manufacturing up and running again.

“We are not out of the woods yet, but we hope to see a speedy return to at least a ‘new normal’ over the next few months.”

So, even if the number of Covid-19 cases is expected to rise, there are various ways to protect the workforce in these trying times.
We, as South Africans, have proven our resilience and can – most certainly – weather this storm.

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SHEQ Management

SHEQ MANAGEMENT is the definitive source for reliable, accurate and pertinent information to guarantee environmental health and safety in the workplace.
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